After last week’s episode of a bald eagle picking up a fish from a local pond, I witnessed a red-tailed hawk swoop down and catch its dinner along I-88.
It reminded me of seeing a woman with a hawk on her hand several years ago, hunting along a hedge row near Fort Plain. We were hunting pheasants along the river flats and she already had a cock bird with its long tail hanging out of her hunting vest. Her hawk was doing a better job than we were.
Falconry is an ancient sport, dating back to prehistoric times. Later on, early merchants who traded for spices in the Middle East as well as the Crusaders witnessed the sport and took trained hawks back to Europe with them. It became the sport of the privileged class – the sport of kings. During the 17th century, after the introduction of the shotgun, falconry virtually died out, only surviving in Europe among enthusiastic members of hawking clubs.
Today, people all over America still enjoy the sport.
New York State actually has a falconry season, but you must take a test and have a license to hunt with a raptor. The license costs $40 and is good for five years. Falconry season coincides with our small game and waterfowl seasons which began on Oct. 1.
There are three levels of falconry that require several years to hunt with a bird. Level 1: you must be at least 14 years old and train under the sponsorship of a general or master falconer. You are allowed to have one raptor. Level 2: You must have two years of experience, be at least 18 years old, and can own three raptors. A Master falconer – Level 3 – requires five years of experience as a general falconer and can have up to 13 raptors. The license allows the falconer to buy, sell, possess, and train raptors.
Red-tailed hawks are the “bread and butter of falconry in America.” They are a common species and are very easily trained. According to the Pennsylvania Falconry Association, it takes only about two to three weeks to get a bird hunting. They quickly learn the advantage of having a human hunting partner.
Falconers use thick heavy leather gloves when handling the birds.
Their sharp talons can easily rip open human flesh. They often use a hood when handling the bird. It keeps the hawk calm by blocking its sight. They learn that when the hood is removed it’s time to get serious and hunt for the game. They also use leather straps called Jesses which are fastened to the hawk’s legs to control the raptor.
Experienced falconers with well-trained raptors often let the birds free fly and either find or flush the game for the bird, which follows along or hunts overhead.
There are those of you who may think that this is cruel. Some falconers release their bird at the end of the season and others hunt them for many years. For those who release them it’s a bittersweet moment for both the falconer and the falcon. Red-tailed hawks seem to adapt and love their new lifestyle.
If you are interested in this sport, check out the book ‘The Falconer’s Apprentice’ by William Oates. as well as the New York State Falconry Guide published by the New York State Dept. of Environmental Conservation. You might also check out the New York State Falconry Association. All are available online.